AUGUSTA Police arrived at Augusta High School just as the rumors of violence after a student's suicide became shrill, leading parents to rush the campus to take their children home.
But police and school officials say the text-message-fueled panic over others committing suicide and weapons at the small town's high school turned out to be only a way for students to avoid taking semester-ending exams.
"Somebody took advantage of a tragedy that happened in Augusta, a tragedy of a young man taking his life," Superintendent Richard Blevins said. "Somebody exploited that and I guess that made me madder than anything else. Somebody was so insensitive to use that for their own gain."
Bomb threats and disruptions have happened before at the 200-student high school in Augusta, a city in northeastern Arkansas on the banks of the White River. But police say the proliferation of cell phones among students allowed some to take advantage of the 16-year-old student's death through small-town gossip in the electronic age.
"There's rumor mills in this town like you just cannot believe, because everyone knows everybody. Ninety percent of people is kinfolks with somebody else," Augusta police Capt. Jim Moore said. "You get a ripple that spreads like a wave."
Moore retired as police chief in Augusta in 1996 after 20 years patrolling its two square miles, returning only after the current chief got called up to serve in Iraq. He remembered some threats in the past, and how the phone company once tracked down a boy calling in a bomb threat so quickly that responding officers still found him with the receiver in his hand.
Crime is slow in Augusta, though, as the department on average responds to one reportable call a day.
Then on Dec. 17, officers responding to a call found a 16-year-old student dead after he had hanged himself. Moore said counselors came down to talk to students at the high school - and that's when the rumors started.
"They just said there was going to be a shoot 'em up," Moore said. "They was supposed to have been a pact and all this kind of stuff - that there were going to be eight or 10 hang themselves over the holidays."
The next day, the Woodruff County sheriff's office got a call saying students were talking about bringing guns to school. Parents called the school district worried about the supposed plot.
Augusta police and a sheriff's deputy were at the school Dec. 18 as students entered. Blevins said school district officials used a handheld metal detector to scan everyone entering the building and looked through bags for weapons as well.
"The only thing we found were cell phones," Blevins said, an item banned at the school, but grudgingly accepted by teachers and staffers. But after the wand searches, the superintendent said students began text messaging each other, spreading the rumor to family members.
By 10 a.m., only 25 students remained at the 335-pupil elementary school after panicked parents descended on the campus. The Searcy Police Department called, asking if police at Augusta needed help after a report of a shooting at the school reached the larger town nearby. Ambulances were even diverted to the area.
Blevins said the school probably lost two days from the panic, initially spread by students who said they got threatening text messages.
"Of course, this never happened. It's just more damn rumors," Moore said. "Every kid down there has a cell phone and they just jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber."
Augusta High School is now closed for winter break, the only noise coming from whistles and pounding of basketball practices. But on Jan. 7, the school's first day of the new year, Blevins said staff will institute a zero-tolerance policy on cellular phones. He also plans a full investigation into who caused the panic, promising to push for expulsions.
"It's like hollering fire in a crowded theater," Blevins said. "We can't have people doing that."
But Moore believes there likely won't be any criminal charges filled in the case.
"It's all just a rumor," he said.